What If Mahler Had Premiered Charles Ives’ Third Symphony?

This is a familiar daydream for us Charles Ives fans. Mahler is supposed to have seen the score of Ives’ Third Symphony and considered conducting the premiere himself. This would have been an enormous break for Ives. Most of his music had never been performed and seldom was for decades after. The source of the story is mainly Ives himself — certainly not a dishonest man, but neither is he a reliable source. In his Memos he wrote that ‘When this [Symphony No. 3] was being copied in, I think, Tam’s [Tam’s Copying] office, Gustav Mahler saw it and asked to have a copy–he was quite interested in it.’ None of the evidence rises above this level of hear-say.

One Ives biographer fell for this daydream and made it even more fantastic. David Wooldridge was convinced that a performance, or at least a reading, of the Third Symphony took place in Munich in 1910, with Mahler conducting. This is not a claim that’s been repeated in the decades since. All other sources have the date that Mahler saw the score as 1911, and Mahler’s copy of the score is either lost or non-existent. Wooldridge’s account is almost certainly a fabrication.

But what if Mahler had premiered the work in 1911 (despite his ill health) and brought Ives to the attention of the world?

Well, Ives was an awful professional musician. He was not merely forced to become a musical recluse but also partly chose that life. In 1899 his work The Celestial Country was premiered. It is an unremarkable cantata, and obviously a student work, a fact the reviews used as faint-ish praise. It wasn’t in any way a maverick work and Ives could have quite easily continued down this staid professional path. But he chose not to, expressing his contempt by scrawling ‘damn rot and worse’ across one of the favourable reviews. It is probable that he both couldn’t stand the critics — Ives was throughout his life remarkably sensitive to criticism of all kinds — and that he was ashamed to have written such a insipid concession to the ‘old ladies of both sexes’ who made up the American musical establishment. From then on, he lost all ambition to become a professional musician and instead ended up running a remarkably successful life insurance company. This was suited well to Ives: it fulfilled his sense of Christian duty and was in line with his individualist philosophy. He retired a very rich man.

Even though his work was seldom played, he still occasionally received criticism and it could severely disorientate him. In 1914 Ives got a world-class violinist to test out his Second Violin Sonata. He didn’t even make it through the first page. According to Ives, the ‘professor’, as Ives referred to him, put his hands over his ears and said, ‘When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears’! Ives submerged himself in doubt. It was when reflecting on this moment that Ives came out with one of his famous lines: ‘Are my ears on wrong? No one else seems to hear it the same way…’ The next violin sonata he wrote, the Third, was a musical compromise which he very much regretted. ‘The themes are well enough, but there is an attempt to please the soft-ears and be good. The sonata on the whole is a weak sister. But these depressions didn’t last long, I’m glad to say. I began more and more, after séances with nice musicians, that, if I wanted to write music that, to me, seemed worth while, I must keep away from musicians.’

Now imagine how Ives would have reacted to the unprecedented scrutiny of a Mahler-conducted premiere? Moreover, the premiere would have occurred during the most fruitful periods of his composing life, beginning round about 1907-1908 with his first series of heart-attacks and, a year later, his marriage to Harmony Twitchell. This creative outburst lasted about a decade. The Mahler premiere would have been right in the centre of this — a very disruptive turn of events. Much of the Fourth Symphony had yet to be composed, ditto the Concord Sonata and Three Places in New England — the works Ives is best known for. Who knows if these would still have been written? Time-travel fantasies always have a way of screwing everything up.

Ives finally got major premieres later in life, long after he had stopped composing new works. Oddly, the symphonies were premiered in the wrong order: 3 (1946), 2 (1951), 1 (1953), and 4 (1965). (The Holidays Symphony, chronologically his fifth, was premiered in 1954.) A year after the premiere of his Third Symphony, it won the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition. He dismissed the prize, as he always did composition prizes. Yet he nevertheless hung the certificate on his wall. Quietly, he was very proud.

On the 1952 premiere of his Second Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, we have no certain idea what he thought. Ives was not fond of the radio (he didn’t attend the premiere, and had to go to his neighbour’s house to hear the broadcast) and his hearing had become quite awful, this being two years before his death. Still, he probably came away happy. Ives biographer Jan Swafford tells the story:

He was dragged next door to the Ryders’ [Ives’ neighbours] to hear the broadcast and, unlike similar occasions, sat quietly through the whole thing. It was one of his soft pieces, as he called them; it was also perhaps the warmest audience reception of his whole life. As cheers broke out at the end everybody in the room looked his way. Ives got up, spat in the fireplace, and walked into the kitchen without a word. Nobody could figure out if he was too disgusted or too moved to talk. Likely it was the latter.

The Third Symphony is an Ives piece unlike any other, a waypoint between the oddball but quite traditional Second Symphony and the ambitious, celestial Fourth Symphony. In many ways it’s the Ives symphony for people who don’t like Ives. Enjoy: